Interview with Bill DeYoung
Overshadowed by the eruption of Mount St. Helen and the Cuban refugee crisis, the tragic collapse of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in 1980 is finally getting the attention it deserves. Bill DeYoung tells the story of the people whose lives were changed forever. Skyway is available now.
University Press of Florida (UPF): When did you know that you wanted to write this book? What led you to this subject?
Bill DeYoung (BD): Everything I read about the incident was either incomplete or somehow contradictory, and led to more questions: Who were these people? What did it feel like to live through this? Most importantly, what really happened? For a journalist, that’s the process: You become immersed in a story, and obsessed with every angle. Once I began to piece together the post-accident lives of John Lerro and Wesley MacIntire, I knew I was looking at a great narrative, full of irony and pathos. I wasn’t interested in writing an historical book about bridge safety or the shipping industry – I saw it as a very human story, about people who went through a lot. That’s why I did it. There was also a very simple desire to set the record straight.
UPF: How is your day structured when you write? What’s your writing routine?
BD: I’ve tried disciplining myself – get up early, brew a pot of coffee, write for four hours, that sort of thing. Doesn’t work for me. I write in spurts, whenever I feel compelled to, any time of the day (or night). I would find myself thinking about Skyway in the middle of dinner.
Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, resulting in 57 deaths and over $1.1 billion in property damage in Washington, after a two-month series of earthquakes generated increasing concern about the stability of the volcano. Buried under that ash was another unimaginable tragedy, occurring across the country, in Tampa, FL, just 9 days earlier.
UPF: Do you think that the collapse of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge would be remembered differently in the national consciousness if the media had not been focused on the eruption of Mount St. Helen?
BD: Between the Cuban refugee crisis, the Liberty City riots, the Blackthorn incident and Skyway, it was a banner year for bad news in Florida. And the Mount St. Helens eruption certainly replaced Skyway on the nation’s front pages. I think if the media had given as much play to Lerro’s exoneration, and the established fact that the weather and other factors had actually caused the collision, he wouldn’t have lived the remainder of his life like a pariah. Historically, people remembered the banner headlines of the first weeks, and not what was quietly revealed afterwards.
UPF: Where were you when you first heard the news?
BD: Working in a record shop in a mall that’s no longer there. I remember the terrible rain that morning; when we heard about what had happened to the Skyway, we went down to JC Penney’s and watched the gut-wrenching local coverage on the wall of demo TVs.
UPF: Describe what you remember seeing at the scene of the accident.
BD: I’ll never forget driving over the remaining span and looking over at the gaping hole 100 feet away. It stood that way for seven years, until the new Skyway opened. My heart stopped every single time as I imagined the horrible free-fall those vehicles took in 1980. It was like a crime scene, with the body still lying there, exposed.
UPF: You talk about the red flags that were being raised about the bridge in the 1970s, the decade before it collapsed. Do you think if it hadn’t been this particular accident, that another accident would have been inevitable?
BD: It’s important to remember that, although premature cracking and stress wear had been found in the concrete bridge supports, it was the direct impact from a 20,000-ton ship that knocked the Skyway down. And this happened because the support piers were not protected by some sort of barrier, and never had been, since the first span was erected in 1954. Considering the ship traffic in and out of the Port of Tampa, I think it was something of a miracle that it hadn’t happened before 1980.
UPF: If this accident were to happen now, what, if anything, would be different in how it was handled by the media and the courts?
BD: I think the courts, all things considered, handled it well. Because it was such a complex web of cases, it just took a long time to resolve. More to the point, the bridge is now fully protected – at great cost – and pilots have an extraordinary arsenal of sophisticated detection equipment that did not exist in 1980, with built-in redundancies. Hopefully it won’t happen again.
UPF: What do you hope readers will enjoy the most about your book?
BD: I put readers in the wheelhouse of Summit Venture with John Lerro and Bruce Atkins, and on the bridge with Wes MacIntire and the other drivers who narrowly avoided death. And from that point, we stay with them. I hope readers will feel as if they’re right there.
People who really liked The Perfect Storm should enjoy this book.
UPF: Who are your favorite authors, and how have they influenced or informed your own work?
BD: I am a big fan of James Swanson’s Civil War narratives, Manhunt and Bloody Crimes. They are breathless, true narratives, and certainly Swanson’s style has been an influence on me. Mostly, though, I think it’s my work as a journalist that informs Skyway; I tried to keep it conversational, fast-moving and not overly technical. I wanted readers to identify with the characters.
UPF: What are you working on next?
BD: Because of my music background, I’m hoping to write the authorized biography of the pop group the 5th Dimension.
UPF: Do you have one sentence of advice for new authors?
BD: Always trust your instincts.